I recently caught up with the 2019 movie Muscle, directed by Gerard Johnson. This film and Johnson’s two previous films, Tony (2009) and Hyena (2014), show that he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as better-known British filmmakers of the 21st century like Shane Meadows and Ben Wheatley. Movies like Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) deliver winning and distinctly British combinations of grimness, violence, black humour and both gritty realism and phantasmagorical weirdness. Johnson’s work does this too, with Muscle being his most accomplished film yet.
Set against the backdrop of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a city I’m always happy to see turn up in a film, and shot in a simultaneously gorgeous and spooky monochrome, Muscle tells the story of a downtrodden and unhappy man (Cavan Clerkin) who tries to turn his life around. Sick of his job-from-hell in a borderline scam-operation call centre and upset by the end of a long-term relationship, he decides to re-invent himself by pumping iron at a gym. Unfortunately, a hulking muscleman (one-time low-budget British-film-industry action hero Craig Fairbrass) makes his acquaintance there, takes him under his wing and promises to transform him from Wimpo to Rambo. Fairbrass proves to be a psycho, unhinged by steroid abuse, who’s soon trying to take control of every aspect of Clerkin’s life. This makes for an engrossing, if occasionally gross, meditation on the lengths to which men will go to reach a misguided ideal of masculinity. Its testosterone-fuelled darkness is interleaved with occasional humour and there are excellent performances from the two lead actors.
However, what I want to write about here is the band that provides the needling, at times hallucinogenic music for Muscle, as well as for Tony and Hyena, the veteran post-punk / alternative band The The. In existence since 1979, and graced with the most grammatically painful name in musical history, The The is basically a one-man-operation by London singer, songwriter and musician Matt Johnson who, yes, is director Gerard Johnson’s brother. Other band-members have come and gone and come back again at different points, in the studio and on stage, including former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and former Bowie guitarist Gail Ann Dorsey. Also, a host of famous names have made one-off contributions to The The’s records. Johnson’s collaborators over the years have included Marc Almond, Neneh Cherry, Lloyd Cole, Jools Holland, Sinead O’Connor and J.G. ‘Foetus’ Thirlwell.
The The was especially prominent for a decade from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, releasing a quartet of albums, Soul Mining (1983), Infected (1986), Mind Bomb (1989) and Dusk (1993), which uniquely captured the zeitgeist of the era. I heard about the band while I was at college, though to be honest I resisted listening to it for a long time because the students I knew who were The The fans seemed a bunch of smug, self-consciously trendy tossers reminiscent of the Rik Mayall character in TV’s The Young Ones (1982-84). That, of course, wasn’t Matt Johnson’s fault. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that I sat down and experienced The The’s music for the first time, after my brother gave me a recording of Infected on a cassette tape. The result was love at first listen.
© Some Bizarre / Epic
Johnson’s songs had some wonderfully catchy hooks. Also, despite the presence of guitars, drums, horns and harmonicas, they had a precise, shiny, synth-y sound that, unlike a lot of 1980s music, still sounds fresh and invigorating today. However, Johnson’s lyrics were, for the most part, grim. He wasn’t afraid to sing about what was going on in the world around him and, in the 1980s, much was what was going on seemed bloody horrible: the Reagan-Thatcher love-in, the coming of the Yuppies, the AIDS epidemic, the Ayatollah, the Iran-Iraq War, Chernobyl, Bhopal, Hillsborough, the Lockerbie Bombing, Tiananmen Square. Though I have to say that in terms of horribleness, the past year or two have certainly given the 1980s a run for their money.
Also, Johnson was willing to put his voice up front. His words didn’t get buried in the mix. Thus, when I listened again to my The The collection recently, I immediately found myself singing along to it, so familiar had the lyrics been to me back in the day. When I heard the simultaneously funky and sinister Sweet Bird of Truth (1986), I started mouthing the lines with its narrator, a battle-scarred, psychotic war veteran: “Across the beaches and cranes, rivers and trains / All the money I’ve made, bodies I’ve maimed / Time was when I seemed to know / Just like any other little G.I. Joe / Should I cry like a baby, die like a man / While the planet’s little wars start joining hands…” The words rushed back to me too when I listened again to The Beat(en) Generation (1989), which lambasts the apathy and materialism of 1980s youth, with Johnson accusing them of being “raised on a diet of prejudice and misinformation” and pleading with them to “open your eyes, open your imagination.” It’s entirely consistent with The The’s style that while Johnson fulminates and despairs vocally, a harmonica breezes along beside him and threatens to turn into the intro from the Beatles’ Love Me Do (1962).
Then there’s Armageddon Days are Here (Again) (1989), which for obvious reasons still sounds potent in 2021: “Islam is rising, the Christians mobilising / The world is on its elbows and knees / It’s forgotten the message and worships the creed.” Later, he notes sourly, “If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today / He’d be gunned down cold by the C.I.A.” Or Heartland, (1986), which contains the lines, “This is the land where nothing changes / The land of red buses and blue-blooded babies / This is the place where pensioners are raped / And the hearts are being cut from the Welfare State,” and which ends with the refrain, “This is the 51st state of the U… S… A…”
Small wonder that when the music magazine Q reviewed a new The The album in the 1990s, it topped the review with the headline, CHEER UP, IT’S MATT JOHNSON. Or as Johnson himself confessed in the lyrics of Slow Emotion Replay (1993), “Everybody knows what’s going wrong with the world / But I don’t even know what’s going on in myself.”
Then in 1996, Johnson did something surprising. He released a The The album called Hanky Panky that consisted entirely of cover versions by the hard-livin’, and early-dyin’, country-and-western troubadour Hank Williams. On the face of it, The The and Hank Williams seemed to belong in different musical universes, but the result was surprising listenable. Its highlights were a dark and diseased-sounding version of Honky Tonkin’ (“When you are sad and lonely and have no place to go / Call me up, sweet baby, and bring along some dough…”) and an exhilarating one of I Saw the Light (“I saw the light, I saw the light / No more darkness, no more night!”).
Admittedly, Hanky Panky wasn’t to everyone’s tastes. I was living in Japan when the album came out and I lent it to a Japanese friend who was not only an aficionado of Hank Williams but also a country-and-western singer and country-and-western DJ. I should add that he was influenced by Hank’s lifestyle as much as he was by his music. Whenever he had an alcohol-fuelled mishap, such as suffering burns to his forearms after toppling onto a barbecue at a party, he’d shrug it off with the philosophical observation, “Well, that’s what Hank Williams would have done too.” He gave Hanky Panky a couple of spins on his local radio show but confessed to me afterwards that he and his listeners were baffled by it.
The The released one more ‘proper’ album, 2000’s Naked Self, which gets unfairly overlooked in retrospectives of the band. Among its songs, December Sunlight is gorgeous and Boiling Point shows Johnson still able to evoke grim scenarios where everything seems to teeter on the edge of disaster.
Thereafter, Johnson remained busy but in a slightly different field. Still using the moniker of The The, he worked on movie soundtracks. In 2012 he provided the music for the award-winning documentary Moonbug, about the astronauts who took part in the Apollo space programme. By this time he’d also contributed to the first film directed by his brother Gerard: 2009’s Tony, a nihilistic low-fi horror movie about a lonely, introverted and put-upon man living in a London block of flats who turns out to be a serial killer. Five years later, he made his mark on the soundtrack of his brother’s Hyena, a crime drama that reworks Abel Ferrara’s legendary The Bad Lieutenant (1992) with corrupt London coppers and Albanian gangsters. For someone who’d always put an emphasis on words, the non-vocal soundscapes Johnson creates for these films are surprisingly effective. Sequences like the one in Tony where the title character wanders through the cold, hostile London night, or the one early on in Hyena where a police team raids a dodgy London club and proves to be as mindlessly violent as the gangsters running the place, are boosted immeasurably by the presence of his music.
Soundtrack work aside, though, I’m sure the past two decades have been frustrating ones for The The fans desperate for Johnson to produce another fully-fledged album. In 2017, the wait seemed to be nearly over, for a new The The single, We Can’t Stop What’s Coming, was released and the band’s Wikipedia entry stated that a new album was currently ‘in progress’. However, no standalone album has appeared since then and the entry was perhaps referring to the band’s soundtrack album for Muscle, released in 2020. That album produced the unmistakably The The-esque, i.e. simultaneously breezy and brooding, single I Want 2 B U.
In the meantime, if you feel a yearning for some sublimely catchy and groovy music combined with some of the angriest lyrics in pop and rock music, you could do far worse than listen to The The’s back catalogue. Matt Johnson’s band really is the definite article.